Three Rivers Petroglyphs, New Mexico

We view the world through our own lenses of understanding. I am a storyteller and my mother a mathematician. During an hour-long hike through a rugged rocky trail, my mother and I observe numerous images carved into the surface of rocks. Many of the designs are of animal or human-like figures, as well as geometric and abstract patterns. For me, the images are tales to entertain and educate, while my mother discerns a system of counting.

Figures carved stone. Could it be a declaration of love?
Figures carved in stone. Could it be a declaration of love?

Left column downward, 1, 3, 2. Could it be a system of counting?

My mother reads from the left column downward, 1, 3, 2. Could it be a system of counting?

More than 21,000 etchings decorate nearly 50 acres of rocky outcrops in south-central New Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the Southwest. The area is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which set aside the site "solely because of the rock art." Removing part of a rock’s surface to reveal a distinct image creates petroglyphs. The glyphs at Three Rivers were produced between 900 and 1400 AD by peoples of the Jornada Mogollon culture. The inhabitants of the region are believed to be distinctly different from the Ancestral Puebloans from the Four Corners region. Also nearby is a trail to the remains of a Mogollon village.

A face with earrings feel like a glimpse into the past.

Gazing at this face with earrings feels like a glimpse into the past.

In Jornada Mogollon rock art, the creator cleverly uses the texture of the rock for the bighorn sheep's eye.  

In Jornada Mogollon rock art, the creators cleverly use the texture of the rocks. The nodule in this rock is used for the bighorn sheep's eye.

Visitors can access many fascinating petroglyphs along a rough half-mile trail. A trail guide informs viewers about the various glyphs at numbered markers along the way. However, there are numerous designs, patterns, and figures all over the rocks.

Hikers are encouraged to wander the area watching out for rattlesnakes. Visitors will enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding Sacramento Mountains to the east with Sierra Blanca Peak rising to 11,973 feet. To the west, a puzzling white haze obscures the Tularosa Basin below the San Andres mountain range. Maps along the trail outline the views and mountain peaks explaining the geological history of the region and the windblown cloudy haze from White Sands National Monument 30 miles to the southwest.

My mother and I were able to view rock art easily but with caution. Several craggy areas may require assistance for small children or the elderly. The petroglyph site can be enjoyed in a couple of hours. Additional trails into the mountains and the Lincoln National Forest are nearby.

Cloudy haze of windblown gypsum from White Sands National Monument.

The cloudy haze of windblown gypsum from White Sands National Monument.

Helping my mother hike the rock art trial.
Helping my mother hike the rock art trail in her mocassins.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs combines some of my favorite things; archeology, geology, hiking, and art. I believe the tangible nature of the site will inspire both children and adults' curiosity about the ancients.

The petroglyph trail is open year-round and is located in New Mexico off US HWY 54. The site is approximately two & a half hours south of Albuquerque. A daily entrance fee of $5 cash per vehicle or $7 for camping is required. The tiny visitor's office was not able to make any change. Several groups waited in the parking lot until other cars arrived with change or simply paid a higher fee as a donation.

Lodgings are available in the nearby towns of Tularosa and Alamogordo. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat to enjoy the stimulating landscape.


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